For most people, the idea of “Green Energy” likely evokes images of solar panels and wind turbines. However, the movement toward renewable energy, and a more reliable and efficient power grid, involves many other forms of technology that may yet be unfamiliar to the average person. But as the push to expand Green Energy production grows, so too will the prevalence of the technologies needed to support the industry.
On Long Island, communities from Hempstead to Southold are witnessing the introduction of a previously unfamiliar form of Green-adjacent technology in the form of Battery Energy Storage Systems, or “BESS”. I refer to BESS facilities as “Green-adjacent” because, unlike wind and solar farms, they do not produce electricity of their own. Instead, they store it. So far, local reception of these uses is mixed.
What Are BESS?
BESS facilities generally consist of rows of rechargeable batteries housed in self-contained, interconnected storage units. BESS facilities typically operate by drawing surplus energy from the local power grid during periods of low usage and storing it for later distribution back into the grid during peak demand. However, they can also be used as direct storage for electricity produced by renewable energy production facilities, like wind and solar farms. In either case, BESS stabilize the local power grid by ensuring reliability during periods when the grid might otherwise experience a partial or total deficit in voltage, commonly known as “brownouts” and “blackouts”. Thus, proponents of BESS offer that these facilities can reinforce the local power grid not only on a daily or routine basis, but also during emergencies when demand is especially high or when electrical transmission from outside the local grid is severed.
BESS and Zoning
From a land use perspective, BESS facilities are a low-impact uses. Once a facility is constructed and operational, it requires no regular staffing, only routine maintenance. This results in virtually no traffic, and almost no need for onsite parking. The facilities can also be monitored remotely, which further reduces traffic, and onsite staffing and parking. Site lighting at BESS facilities is also largely unnecessary, except for security purposes. The absence of employees also means there is virtually no water consumption at BESS facilities, and commensurately, little to no sewage.
The only potentially significant planning concern associated with BESS facilities is noise generated by cooling fans. However, noise is not always a problem depending on the size and configuration of a project. In instances where noise may be an issue, the industry has implemented methods of noise mitigation, including the use of sound barriers and landscaping.
Naturally, not everyone is sold on BESS. Opponents of these facilities have raised concerns over the presence of highly flammable substances, such as from lithium-ion batteries, and possible air and groundwater contamination. Historically, concerns about such threats were resolved by zoning certain uses out of residential areas and restricting them to high-intensity industrial districts. However, that is not always feasible with BESS.
BESS facilities must connect to the local power grid through a substation with adequate capacity to accommodate the transmission between the BESS facility and the grid. Additionally, the greater the distance between a BESS facility and the substation, the less efficient the transmission will be. As a result, designing a viable BESS facility may require that a BESS facility be located in or near a residential district in some cases. This is certain to be the situation in more urbanized areas of Long Island, like western Nassau County, where there is high density of uses and districts in close proximity to one another. Thus, planning for the future of BESS facilities on Long Island will not be without its challenges.
Status of Local Regulations
To date, the Towns of Brookhaven, Huntington, Islip and Southampton are the only four of Long Island’s 13 towns to adopt zoning regulations for BESS facilities. Their respective regulations are summarized below. The Town of Riverhead Town Board very recently discussed a set of draft BESS regulations based on the model law published by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) (available here: https://www.lilanduseandzoning.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/128/2023/01/NYSERDA-model-1.pdf). However, the future of that legislation is uncertain. Other towns, like the Town of Southold, are discussing possible moratoria on BESS facilities out of concern for potential environmental impacts and public safety.
- Town of Brookhaven
The Town of Brookhaven—Long Island’s largest town geographically, and second largest by population–enacted its BESS zoning regulations in February 2020. They are set forth in Sections 85-814 through 85-817 of the Town’s Zoning Code, which may be accessed here: https://www.lilanduseandzoning.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/128/2023/01/Brookhaven-4.pdf
Like the NYSERDA model, Brookhaven’s regulations separate BESS facilities into two tiers based on system capacity. Tier I projects are BESS facilities having capacity up to 599 kilowatt hours (kWh). They are permitted in the Town’s J-2 and J-5 Business Districts by special permit from the Brookhaven Planning Board, and are permitted by right in the Town’s L-1, L-2, and L-4 Industrial Districts. Tier II projects are BESS facilities having capacity of 600 kWh or greater. Unlike Tier I projects, Tier II projects are restricted to the L-1, L-2, and L-4 Industrial Districts.
Other notable requirements in Brookhaven’s BESS regulations include the minimum lot size for all BESS projects (40,000 sq. ft.); moderate to substantial setback requirements; and various other design standards affecting clearing, site lighting, and noise mitigation. The code further requires the approval of a decommissioning plan and the posting of decommissioning bond.
2. Town of Huntington
The Town of Huntington enacted its BESS zoning regulations in October, 2020. They are set forth in Section 198-68.3 of the Town’s Zoning Code, which may be accessed here: https://www.lilanduseandzoning.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/128/2023/01/Huntington-1.pdf.
Unlike Brookhaven, the Town of Huntington does not separate BESS projects into tiers. Instead, facilities that are two (2) acres or larger and within 200 ft. of a residential district require a Planning Board special permit. The code is otherwise fairly generous toward BESS projects, allowing them as principal permitted uses in all Light Industrial Districts (I-1 through I-4) in addition to the General Industrial (I-5) and Generating Station (I-6) Districts. BESS projects are also permitted as accessory uses in these districts, and by special permit in the General Business (C-6) District, if they occupy 2% or less of the project site and serve another building or facility on the same premises.
Like Brookhaven, the Town of Huntington’s BESS regulations include several design requirements affecting setbacks, height, site lighting, and noise mitigation. The approval of a decommissioning plan is also required.
3. Town of Islip
The Town of Islip enacted its BESS zoning regulations in July 2022. They are set forth in Section 68-456 of the Town’s Zoning Code, which may be accessed here: https://www.lilanduseandzoning.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/128/2023/01/Islip-1.pdf
The Town of Islip operates on a three-tier classification system, with Tier III being the largest (601 kWh or greater) followed by Tier II (81-600 kWh), and then Tier I (80 kwH or smaller). Tier I BESS are permitted in all zoning districts in the Town. Tier II BESS are permitted in the Town’s B-1, B-2, and B-3 Business District in addition to its Industrial Districts (excluding Industrial Business [I-B]). Tier III BESS are restricted to the Industrial 1 and Industrial 2 Districts only.
In addition to imposing design standards and decommissioning requirements similar to Brookhaven and Huntington, the Town of Islip code includes specific provisions regarding commissioning plans, project operations, and safety during a project’s lifetime.
4. Town of Southampton
The Town of Southampton enacted its BESS zoning regulations in January 2021. They are set forth in Section 330-162.21 of the Town’s Zoning Code, which may be accessed here: https://www.lilanduseandzoning.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/128/2023/01/Southampton-1.pdf
In Southampton (outside the incorporated villages), BESS facilities are permitted in all zoning districts, including residential districts, subject to varying standards depending on the district in question. Additionally, the Town sets aside specific “avoidance areas” having special environmental, historical, cultural, or recreational value where BESS facilities are prohibited.
Like the other towns discussed, Southampton imposes specific standards governing setbacks, site lighting, and noise mitigation, among other things. It also requires a decommissioning plan, and payment into a “decommissioning fund”.
Note: The attached regulations are presented as published on the General Codes website on the date of this post. Independent review of the current regulations of the governing town should be performed in connection with any future project through the General Codes website (https://www.generalcode.com/library/#) or at the town’s offices.